Who Killed Patricia Curran?

Kieran Fagan is an ex-journalist living in Dublin

My new book Who Killed Patricia Curran? identifies her mother Lady Doris Curran, wife of Northern Ireland high court judge, Lance Curran, as the murderer.  Patricia was. 19 years old, in her first year at Queen’s University in Belfast, in November 1952.  Seventy years ago around midnight on 12 November  12, 1952, her parents reported that she had failed to return to the family home at Whiteabbey on the northern shore of Belfast Lough. Not long afterwards he body was found in the shrubbery off the avenue which led up the family house. She had been stabbed 37 times.

Albert Kennedy, the RUC  detective nominally in charge of the investigation warned his boss, Sir Richard Pim that he suspected that Lance Curran,  a high court judge and former Stormont attorney general,  wasn’t telling the truth about his daughter’s movements the night she died. In the judge’s account his daughter never got home that night. Kennedy suspected that she could have reached home and been murdered there., and the body placed in the grounds where it would look like she was the victim of a random attack by a stranger. This put the wind up the RUC inspector general which is what the chief constable was then called.  He decided that his small force needed help  with a very delicate investigation and sent for Scotland Yard. This  was probably the worst decision of Richard Pim’s career.

The  Metropolitan Police in London sent one of its most experienced investigators to help. Detective Inspector John Capstick became focused on a young Scottish recruit at an air force base in Whiteabbey.  At the end of three days of non-stop interrogation Iain Hay Gordon confessed.  He was found guilty but insane of the murder of Patricia and that was that. Except it wasn’t, he was neither guilty nor insane, as an appeal court much later accepted. Capstick had bullied and blackmailed him. If he signed the confession, Gordon’s mother would not find out that he had been having sex with men, Capstick promised.

Gordon stood trial in Belfast in March in 1953. The chief justice Lord McDermott drove the trial at breakneck speed. He had the arrangements for the inquiry in the loss of the car ferry Princess Victoria coming down the track at him.  Initially, the defence made a good job of pointing out that there wasn’t one shred of evidence against Gordon. But then the confession was admitted in evidence. The death penalty was now all but inevitable.  The prosecution was in trouble too. Detective Inspector John Capstick was a loose cannon, he couldn’t be put in the witness box with the jury present, anything might happen. Beside which it had already become clear that the chaotically disorganised Iain Hay Gordon, the laughingstock of Edenmore RAF base, could never have murdered Patricia Curran and cleaned up so professionally afterwards so that there was no direct evidence of his involvement.

By the midpoint of the trial both defence and prosecution came to an uneasy truce. The defence would accept that Gordon might have murdered Patricia in the course of a fit, and the prosecution would not oppose a verdict of guilty but insane. Gordon would be sent to an asylum and the matter could be sorted out away from the attention of the press. The danger of hanging an innocent man was thus averted.

That danger was real. Derek Bentley, a burglar,  was hanged in Wandsworth prison a few months earlier.  An underage accomplice of Bentley’s shot a policeman when they were disturbed during a burglary. The guy who fired the shot was too young to hang, so Bentley paid the price. Getting back to Gordon, at least he lived to fight his case. In this respect, the Northern Ireland court did better than the London one. Gordon was released from Holywell Asylum seven years later following a campaign initiated by his mother, Brenda Gordon supported by a Quaker teacher called Dorothy Turtle and using legal tactics which owed much to an Ulster-born MP for Hornchurch Geoffrey Bing.  Two unionist politicians Walter Topping and Brian Faulkner had the courage to take unpopular decisions to allow his release.

The purpose of publishing Who Killed Patrica Curran?  on the 70th anniversary of her death is to fill in the gaps in public knowledge of an unloved murder which has perplexed many,  and to repair the damage to the victim’s reputation. Too many people believe a garbled version of Patricia’s story in which her alleged promiscuity played a part in her death.  In fact the autopsy showed that she died a virgin.

Who Killed Patricia Curran? by Kieran Fagan is published on Amazon in paperback  for £13, and Kindle download costs £4. 

Editors note: I know this story still fascinates people today. Our late friend Robert wrote about it back in 2015 After almost 70 years, the murder of Patricia Curran casts a long shadow and Desmond Curran brother of murdered Patricia Curran reported dead in South Africa…

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